Drop into the picture-book walled city of Dubrovnik any Saturday from May to October, and you’ll find the dazzling limestone flags of the main street, Stradun, obscured by the shuffling hordes decanted by Adriatic cruise ships. Those 'here-today, gone-today' sightseers spend, on average, less than €10 per head inside these Unesco-listed walls. For the thousand people who still live in the old city, the sheer number of tourists must be overwhelming.
And yet, on an assignment with a group of Wanderlust readers last weekend, we found Dubrovnik dwellers charming, generous, faultlessly hospitable and keen to share the secrets of their city beyond those whirlwind cruise ship tours.
First, there was freelance city guide Ivana Soldo, a language teacher fluent in the tales of Dubrovnik’s rich past. We met her by St Saviour’s Church, still pocked by shrapnel from the 1991-92 shelling of the city during the Croatian War of Independence. ‘Medieval’ was Ivana’s word for the siege tactics used by the attacking Yugoslav army. Shells poured down on the red roof tiles from the surrounding hills; planes flew menacingly low overhead; dozens were killed – but an occupation was never attempted. Why on earth was Dubrovnik attacked, we asked Ivana. She shrugged. “It was a symbol.”
Ivana led us on an unforgettable walk along the city walls, holding forth enthusiastically on everything from the curved roof tiles (originally shaped over the tiler’s thigh) to the brooding Lovrijenak Castle – “the second best place in the world to watch a performance of Hamlet”.
It was a tip from Ivana which later led me to the Maritime Museum, a quiet and wave-lapped space for the city’s seafaring past, where you can see startling photos of the now-tranquil harbour ablaze with burning boats in December 1991. But my favourite of her insights was down a little side street, empty and dark by now (“Don’t be afraid!”), where she showed us a quirky piece of 16th century graffiti.
‘Pax Vobis Memento Mori Qui Ludentis Pilla’ read the inscription, meaning ‘Peace be with you, and remember that you shall die, you who play ball’ – a warning from a grumpy priest to the football-playing kids disturbing his prayers.
More recent history was on display over at the grand Excelsior Hotel, where the super-chic Nikolina Vicelic of Adriatic Luxury Hotels gave us a glimpse of her five-star world. Twenty years after the war, Dubrovnik’s hotels have a spring in their step once more, and the black and white portraits in the Excelsior’s bar were a reminder of Yugoslavia’s communism-meets-Hollywood heyday. Can any other hotel in the world have hosted Margaret Thatcher, Michael Palin, the Shah of Iran, Yul Brynner – and Che Guevara? As we sank a grappa and watched an almost laughably beautiful sunset – the Excelsior is the place for a sundowner – we imagined the conversations that must have taken place in this piano bar.
Whatever those luminaries talked about, I suspect it wasn’t sea kayaking. Pottering about the Croatian coastline by kayak is a recent innovation, but a perfect antidote to the city-block-sized cruise ships loitering in the harbour. The next morning, we ventured forth onto a squally sea with Marko Grubisic of Adriatic Kayak Tours, who leads half-day and day trips for novices, as well as week-long kayak-camping expeditions to further-flung islands.
Our destination was Lokrum, the green and pleasant getaway island for Dubrovnik residents that sits just a few hundred metres offshore. First Marko led us along the coast, past the Excelsior Hotel and on past a headland where the eerie ruins of the Belvedere Hotel, occupied during the war, gaze mournfully over the Adriatic.
Then we kayaked round the stern of a towering cruise ship – feeling like wartime commandos – and beached at a little inlet on Lokrum. Over lunch, Marko told us about the rich potential for adventure tourism in Croatia: kayaking, caving, hiking; a myriad ways for visitors to lose themselves in the great outdoors, rather than cram themselves into souvenir shops.
We’d met three very different Dubrovnik locals, and gained three contrasting perspectives on the city – Ivana’s historical tidbits, Nikolina’s insight into the beau monde, and Marko’s outdoorsy zeal. But one thing was abundantly clear: this is a city rich in nuance and possibility, not a whistle-stop you can tick off on a morning’s excursion from the Monster of the Seas.
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